A tale of infidelity, murder, God and SMSes

A nanny, a clergyman, cellphone messages from God and murder are the keys to a complicated crime which has captivated Sweden since the start of the year.

A trial in Uppsala, north of Stockholm, has revealed a bizarre story of sex and death in the secluded Knutby congregation, which belongs to Sweden's Pentecostal movement.

The case dominates media headlines and Swedes, living in one of the world's most secular and liberal countries, have been shocked to find out what went on in the sect-like community.

"The story has all the classic elements of a drama: murder, sex, religion, infidelity and jealousy", said Niklas Silow, news editor at Sweden's biggest tabloid, Aftonbladet.

His paper runs as many as a dozen pages a day on the case under headlines like "The House of Death" and "Each Sexual Intercourse was a Tribute to God". Aftonbladet's website broadcasts radio reports from the trial.

"Normally, this would only happen in the movies, but here it has taken place in a small rural community," Silow said.

The trial began at the end of May, packed with surprises that would defy even the most imaginative crime writer.

Sara Svensson, a 27-year-old nanny working for one of the congregation's pastors, has confessed shooting dead his wife in January and trying to kill the man next door. She said the pastor, with whom she was having an affair, told her killing them was the only way she could please God.

'But we could not have foreseen that this terrible tragedy would happen'

Prosecutors say 32-year-old pastor Helge Fossmo wanted to get rid of his wife to start a new life with another woman: the wife of the neighbour shot by Svensson. Fossmo denies charges of murder and attempted murder. The sentence for murder in Sweden ranges from 10 years to life.

Fossmo is also suspected of killing his first wife, who "fell over in the bath" in 1999, hitting her head on the tap. Her death was treated was an accident at the time but her corpse has been exhumed and the case reopened.

Knutby is situated in bucolic farmland, but those who have left the sect say life in the congregation was far from idyllic. Led by a woman known as "Christ's Bride" after she "got engaged" to Jesus in a ceremony, the pastors had a say in nearly every aspect of members' lives, including whom they should marry.

The movement is an off-shoot of the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran church to which seven million of Sweden's nine million citizens belong, but rarely visit.

The Knutby congregation put great emphasis on prophecies and witnesses said Fossmo talked about dreams telling him that his wives would be "called home to God".

Kent Cramnell, a Pentecostal pastor and advisor to other congregations, said the movement had been aware of problems and a "lack of democracy" in the Knutby congregation.

"But we could not have foreseen that this terrible tragedy would happen," he said, stressing it was an isolated case.

In a country known for cutting-edge cellphone technology, SMS messages have emerged as vital evidence.

Svensson said she received a number of anonymous messages, which she believed to be from God, urging her to commit murder. A technology company has traced erased messages on her phone to Fossmo, who admitted sending them but said they were intended only to guide the nanny in her faith.

Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden's top broadsheet newspapers, said the Knutby case demonstrated how the latest technology could be used to foster religious fanaticism.

"God appearing by mobile phone is of course no stranger than him appearing in a burning bush," it said in an editorial.